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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K 491 (1786) [28:34]
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K 466 (1785) [28:04]
Martin Stadtfeld (piano)
NDR Sinfonieorchester/Bruno Weil
rec. Rolf Liebermann Studio NDR Hamburg, 28-30 June 2005. DDD
SONY CLASSICAL 82876 737142 [58:58]


As cover portraits go, this is a good one. The soloist Martin Stadtfeld looks in the full bloom of youth - just 25 at the time of this recording - personable, fully focused and eager to communicate. His playing is like that too in this impressive concerto debut. The back cover promises a ‘highly distinctive and fresh interpretation’. Now that’s an arguably overreaching claim. But between the covers there’s some moderately heavy scholarly articulation by Stadtfeld on writing a cadenza. Conductor Bruno Weil, better known in recordings for his performances with period instruments, comments on the orchestral contribution. Of Mozart’s twenty-one fully composed concertos for solo piano, only two are in a minor key and both are presented here. Of this coupling there’s only one pure digital recording currently available in the UK on a single CD. Unfortunately for Stadtfeld the other pianist is Alfred Brendel.
 
In the case of Piano Concerto No. 24 this comes across as a fresh view in which Stadtfeld and Weil are close collaborators. Whether it works for you is another matter. The emphasis is on fluency and objectivity. So if you like your Mozart meltingly lovely or rampantly stormy this won’t be for you. The leap at the end of the phrases of the first movement first theme is strictly staccato on its first, orchestral appearance and always very lightly articulated by the pianist and therefore seems clipped, giving it a quizzical quality. The piano’s opening solo is a little impetuous. On the other hand, with smooth, fleet treatment the third theme (tr. 1 4:24), exchanged across the woodwind, appears kaleidoscopic. There’s a pleasing directness about the following piano presentation and something of a wistful quality brought to the return of the third theme.
 
No cadenza by Mozart having survived, Stadtfeld provides his own. It begins with a recall of the opening piano solo against bell-like trills which gradually become more insistent, clamorous and they too have a clipped character. These merge into a jollier, Bach-like, version of the tail of the second theme which becomes more romantically passionate and then raptly meditative. At just short of three minutes this is a lengthy but imaginative, involving cadenza and the whole performance comes more alive as a result, with a suddenly fiery coda to follow.
 
The slow movement is consistently eased smoothly forward in the same manner as before, but with an attractive softening at the piano’s first repetition of the theme (tr. 2 0:33) and judicious decoration just before and at this and the later fermata (1:00, 5:04). By such touches Stadtfeld does make his assured performance of this movement distinctive, apart from - at a total time of 6:27 - being faster than most recorded performances. Again come the kaleidoscopic wind in the first episode (1:22), a mood well matched by the piano. The second episode (2:55) is presented in a gorgeous unaffectedly blithe way.
 
The finale is also exactingly taken faster than usual. The second orchestral statement repeat is enlivened by some added piano punctuation (tr. 3 0:41). Stadtfeld provides a strong lead in the variation featuring martial dotted rhythms (2:31). This has pace and purpose. The variation in C major (5:13) which might provide some hope is given a light and evanescent character. Stadtfeld opts for the restraint of a brief flourish at the cadenza point to place more weight on an alluring presentation of the 19 bar solo bringing in the coda.
 
So how does Alfred Brendel with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Charles Mackerras (Philips 4626222) compare? There’s more emotional engagement, more fiery tuttis. The soloist’s opening is more contemplative, with more feeling for the individuality of the phrases. The third theme is sunnier. Brendel also provides his own cadenza, a terser one, with always a thematic link to Mozart. It has a robust start before it dwells on and transforms the third theme.
 
Brendel’s slow movement, timed at 7:01, has a touch more spaciousness and singing quality, the refrain a kind of steady state serenity, with a more animated first episode and warmer, but rather over impulsive, second episode. Brendel’s finale has clarity and again steadiness of presentation. The martial variation is broader, the C major one sunnier, the brief cadenza a touch more elaborate.
 
I can understand K466 being placed second as it’s Mozart even more outside the comfort zone. The orchestral introduction begins lightly but restlessly, soon to be followed by stark sforzandos of brutal impact. The opening piano solo is cleanly dispatched, the treatment of the third theme (tr. 4 3:48) only a brief respite wanly glimpsed within the overall severe logic. When the cadenza comes there’s suddenly more colour and weight of tone, as well as a greater range of drama and more mellifluous treatment of the third theme. This is partly because this cadenza is by Beethoven, a green light for more romantic interpretation. But this also suggests there’s been overmuch pianist restraint before. You can play Mozart like Bach (Stadtfeld’s two previous CDs being of Bach), but not Beethoven.
 
The second movement Romance, without any tempo indication, is here taken quite fast. Engagingly shaped, it flows serenely enough. The piano’s elaboration of the opening theme (tr. 5 1:31) is pleasingly, daintily shaded. The central section in G minor (3:18) comes as a sudden shock but the transition back to the opening is deftly achieved.
 
The rondo finale is marked very fast and so played, a tremendous white knuckle ride of an orchestral introduction, the quavers grittily articulated. Then the piano joins the roller-coaster, arguably at too much expense to some thoughtful material in the opening solo and in the impulsive, peremptory manner later (e.g. at tr. 6 2:46). Weil’s notes make specific reference to the authentic use of hand-stopped horns at the start of the development section (2:35), making the chromaticism sinisterly different in timbre. A second Beethoven cadenza is given full value by Stadtfeld in its opening warmth and then flights of fancy before the D major episode ending to the work is realized without any feeling of contrivance, owing to the smooth treatment of its earlier appearance in major keys (1:57).
 
Again, in comparison Brendel and Mackerras bring more involvement through telling moments like the very slight easing in tempo of the soft, three-note echo near the end of the orchestral introduction, so it becomes a real sigh. Similarly the opening piano solo has more of a personal, vocal quality and Brendel’s treatment of the second theme is more of a gentle contrast. Brendel uses his own cadenzas, which to me sound Lisztian, this first one melodramatic.
 
Brendel’s second movement is more smoothly curvaceous than Stadtfeld’s, more assured, even with a touch of frivolity in its finesse. Brendel’s finale - also featuring hand-stopped horns - is steadier than Stadtfeld’s.
 
I think the Philips disc has two other advantageous differentiating factors. First, the Philips recording is more immediate and airy where this Sony recording, though with a natural balance, is a little more set back in a less glowing acoustic. Second, the use of a chamber orchestra brings a more intimate collectivity to its expressiveness. Good though the NDR Sinfonieorchester is here, there isn’t the same sense of personal identification with the works.
 
To conclude, this Stadtfeld and Weil combination is all well thought through, but that’s part of the problem. This is scrubbed up Mozart, very clean, crisp and admirably fluent, but the effect can at times be over dispassionate in its objectivity. The interpretation therefore only really comes alive sporadically, for instance in the cadenzas or the central section of K466 second movement. But when it does it’s stunning.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 

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